Today the three most senior politicians in Iraq are perceived as being unreliable allies for Iraq’s meddling neighbour, Iran.
By Mustafa Habib in Baghdad
The prime minister, president and speaker of the house positions are all filled by politicians considered either unpopular or untrustworthy by the Iranian leadership. This can be seen as a sign of the success of various local groups in Iraq, all of whom had criticized foreign influence in their country.
Last week, former Iraqi spy chief Mustafa al-Kadhimi was elected prime minister of the country after a six-month-long series of events, including anti-government protests that eventually led to the resignation of the previous, newly-elected prime minister, Adel Abdul Mahdi, and the failure of several other prime ministerial candidates.
Al-Kadhimi was not expected to get the job, especially because nominees must usually be approved by allies like Iran and the US. The fact that he did is testament to Iran’s dwindling influence in Iraq.
Al-Kadhimi is not a favourite of Tehran’s: A few short months ago, he was accused of having passed on information to US intelligence that led to the January assassination of important Iranian commander, Qasim Soleimani, and several Iraqis, including Abu Mahdi al-Mohandes, a senior leader in Iraq’s often-controversial Popular Mobilization Units, or PMU. Both men were killed in a US-controlled drone attack.
However, long running anti-government protests have changed Iran’s potential to influence Iraqi politics. Iraqi demonstrators have called out local corruption and international influence in the country, and have refused to back down. There is a lot of popular sympathy in Iraq for the demonstrators’ demands.
The fact that Iranian influencers were forced to make a concession with al-Kadhimi, a former intelligence chief, can be seen as a victory for the loose political grouping that also opposes Iranian interference in Iraqi affairs.
Long running anti-government protests have changed Iran’s potential to influence Iraqi politics.
That group was not successful during the formation of the Iraqi government in 2018, when Adel Abdul Mahdi was selected to be prime minister. Abdul Mahdi was something of a political independent – but he did seem to favour Iran and was not concerned about conflict with Iraq’s other close ally, the US.
Following the campaign against the extremist group known as the Islamic State, there was a significant uptick in Iraqi nationalism. Despite deep social divisions, the country was united in the fight against the Islamic State, or IS, group.
By the 2018 elections, this national unity had seen the formation of two loose political groupings, with one side opposed to Iranian influence in the country and the other desiring more of it. The former group included Iraqi president, Barham Saleh, Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, ex-prime minister Haider al-Abadi and ranking Sunni Muslim politician Osama al-Nujaifi.
The latter group included the senior leaders of PMU units closely tied to Iran, through funding and military guidance, as well as another former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki and the leaders of the Iraqi Kurdish political party, the Kurdistan Democratic Party.
The anti-Iran group wanted to have al-Abadi re-elected as prime minister but didn’t succeed and Abdul Mahdi was given the job instead. However Abdul Mahdi was eventually forced to resign due to the anger of the crowds protesting, and the support they got from the country’s most senior Shiite Muslim cleric, Ali al-Sistani.
New candidates for the job began to be presented but most of the nominees were unacceptable to the ordinary Iraqis who were still protesting.
The president of Iraq, long-serving Iraqi Kurdish politician, Barham Saleh, played a pivotal role at this stage and was seen by some as representing the protesters. The country’s president is supposed to approve prime ministerial candidates and Saleh refused to. He turned three nominees down, including Asaad al-Eidani, Mohammed Shia al-Sudani and Qusay al-Suhail. All three are known for their links to Iran. At one stage, Saleh even threatened to quit over the nominations.
Saleh was criticised for this and threatened. He was also warned not to meet with the US president when he travelled to participate in a conference in Switzerland, even though he eventually did.
Saleh did approve the nomination of two other candidates, Mohammed Tawfiq Allawi and Adnan al-Zurfi.
Al-Zurfi is known as a tough politician with close ties to the US and it is thought that Shiite Muslim politicians were so concerned about his nomination that they agreed on a more conciliatory candidate, Mustafa al-Kadhimi.
The current Speaker of the Iraqi Parliament – usually the country’s top Sunni Muslim politician – also played a role in al-Kadhimi’s nomination. When Mohammed al-Halbousi first got the job in 2018, with the help of Iran-friendly Shiite Muslim politicians, his appointment was considered something of a victory for Iran; al-Halbousi considered a friend to the neighbouring nation.
However al-Halbousi, an ambitious, young politician, changed course and took a new path during the anti-government protests and became more of an Iranian foe. Al-Halbousi has also come out against the demands of some of the pro-Iran politicians that the US withdraw from Iraq completely.
All of which means that, today, for the first time since the end of Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003, Iraq’s top politicians are more supportive of balanced international alliances, with Iran and the US as useful allies rather than dominant ones.